Despite growing up in a Lutheran church and family, I never fully understood infant baptism. Even after years of having it explained to me, I never felt confident in my understanding of baptism. It just always felt like there were other more pressing topics to study. That changed a few months ago when I heard a notable Lutheran Pastor who I have a lot of respect for speak out against the age of accountability. He claimed that the age of accountability is an unbiblical teaching introduced because people reject infant baptism. Is that true? Does infant baptism conflict with the age of accountability?
Let’s first breakdown what we mean by the age of accountability. Then we’ll cover a brief case for why Lutherans baptize infants. Then we’ll look at whether the views conflict.
What do We Mean by Age of Accountability?
Let’s break that down a little further. The age of accountability is the idea that, up to a certain age, children who die will not be held accountable for their sins. They still are sinful by nature. It is a belief about God’s mercy covering their sins even if they had not yet believed in Jesus, rather than not having original sin. This view is not explicitly taught in scripture, but a very strong case for it can be made from scripture.
Note also that the term age of accountability can be misleading. Almost every Christian I have heard talk about this issue agrees that it is not a set age but a state of knowledge or maturity. People grow at different rates. Perhaps an exceptionally bright child might gain this self-awareness earlier than most. Alternatively, you might have a mentally disabled adult who never fully becomes aware of their sin. Some may have treated this view more literally, where every child under 13 is saved and should only be baptized after that. This may be the view that the pastor had in mind, but I don’t think this is what many Christians mean when they talk about the age of accountability.
Why This Question Matters
I had never heard the age of accountability criticized before. I was beginning to think I had misunderstood something fundamental about the Lutheran view of salvation, to begin with. If there is no age or state of accountability, there are serious questions needing answers. What about every baby that dies either by miscarriage or abortion? What about the child that dies before it has the chance to be baptized? Are we really saying that they are all condemned to Hell? Did I miss something? The piece just does not fit with the picture of God we have been given. I figured it was time I sat down with my pastor to hash out a few of these questions. (Side note, but one thing led to another, and that conversation is how we got the 3rd member of the Tent Making Christianity team)
Why Baptize Infants?
I realize that for many of the people reading this, probably the most controversial part is baptizing infants at all. Know that my goal is not to persuade people for or against infant baptism. My goal is to explain what I learned regarding it and whether it conflicts with the age of accountability.
There are a few reasons Lutherans baptize infants. First, the great commission commands Christians to “Go and go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20). Simply put, “all nations” includes babies. Second, examples like the jailer in Acts 16, where he converts and his entire household is baptized. Similarly, though not specifically about baptism, Jesus specifically welcomes children, and likely extremely young children, in Matthew 19:14. “Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Their theological view of baptism is a bit different than what I think many protestants would believe. Some view baptism as essentially the public declaration of one’s faith. Of course, a baby cannot do that, so why baptize them? The Lutheran view is that baptism is not a work of man but a gift from God. Baptism is a means of grace, as they say. The justification is essentialy, why would we keep that gift from God from babies?
Where is the Contradiction?
With that very brief explanation in mind, does infant baptism conflict with the age of accountability? I see no explicit contradiction between the two views.
On the one hand, we have the view that God is merciful and would not condemn young children. On the other hand, we have a blessing and means of grace to be given to all people, children included. The only reason these views might contradict is if baptism is a strict requirement for salvation. To my knowledge, that is not a view held by any mainstream protestant denomination. Some might view it as a means of obtaining salvation, but not a requirement. If it was, how could people like the thief on the cross be saved? Likewise, just because infants are not baptized does not mean God does not have mercy on them.
We are talking about aspects of God that have not been fully revealed to us. I went into this thinking about it like a mathematical equation, where everything is rigid and precise. We must keep in mind that we are not dealing with a computer program, but a living God with a personality. We take what God has revealed to us and see how that fits in with situations like this. Even if God instituted baptism as the ideal, there could still be mercy under less than ideal circumstances.
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